Breaking Down Walls With a Game of Basketball


Valerie Diep, Staffer

There was a basketball game at home against Burlington-Edison on the eighth of this month. It wasn’t your typical competitive match, but a wholesome game with those with and without limitations. You may have heard about Unified Basketball before, but what exactly is it, and what is the purpose?

Unified Basketball is a subcategory of Unified Sports, defined by the Special Olympics as a method to “breakdown stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities in a really fun way.” Thus, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that winning and competitiveness isn’t the main goal of Mariner’s Unified Basketball team.

Last year’s team for Unified Basketball

“Our program philosophy is built around creating relationships and having fun,” head coach Austin Richard explains. “The success of our program has had, I believe, is built around our ability to create an environment where we truly care about one another and are focused on having fun over winning.  The success of our team has been a bi-product of our commitment to this philosophy, which I believe takes away from the ‘pressure’ that arises from competition for some young athletes.”

The game consisted of both boys and girls, and every five minutes (which feels longer than you would expect), players would switch off with a standby player so that everyone would get the chance to have fun. The atmosphere throughout the evening was friendly: teammates exchanging shoulder pats for a good job or reassurance after a mess up; the audience, despite being relatively small, cheered and groaned loudly, making the event feel much more alive. Throughout most of the game, you could hear Melany Hernandez coaching loudly for players to put their hands up to block a shot made by the opposing team.

Melany Hernandez, one of Unified Basketball’s captains.

“Tonight’s game was great,” Hernandez said, “Everyone did their best. Even if in court or off the court we all did our best. It’s all about having fun and having a great attitude.” Even if their team doesn’t win each game, “it doesn’t really matter because that’s just good practice.”

Hernandez is one of the captains of the team, along with Spiro Kafkalidis and Jackson Cole. According to Richard, she “played in the US games in Seattle as a representative of the Washington team that took 2nd place.” She has played Unified Basketball for three years, though, she initially was not very interested in it.

“Well, to be honest with you, I didn’t really want to play Unified—my teachers were the ones [who wanted me to play]… I’m very grateful that they did, for pushing me to do Special Olympics bowling, track and field… I met great friends that I could trust and lean on and also have fun and get to learn about something I never thought would know.”

Her talkative nature and competitive spirit may have been the reason she became captain of the team, “On the deep end,” Hernandez explains, “mostly a lot of my coaches and friends call me ‘The Bulldog,’ but yeah.”

Melany Hernandez making a shot.

Ultimately, Mariner was the victor of the evening, with 38 to 26. After the game was finished, the entire team gathered themselves in a circle and mentioned the positives found in the game and praised team members that performed well with chants and applause. It was inspiring!